BISMARCK — In 2019, North Dakota ranked first in the nation for its high percentage of families having adequate economic resources to support their child’s well-being. Even though the state leads the nation, thousands of children were still living in poverty, according to new data about nationwide child well-being

Approximately 18,000 North Dakota children were living in poverty in 2019, according to the 2021 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that documents child well-being based on factors such as poverty, health and education. The KIDS COUNT data in its latest report was collected in 2018 and 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A combination of economic factors, such as the percentage of children whose parents lack secure employment and the percentage of children living under the poverty line, secured North Dakota the top spot in child economic well-being in comparison to other states, according to the report.

However, North Dakota’s local KIDS COUNT coordinator cautioned others from celebrating the winning ranking.

"North Dakota's high ranking in economic well-being shows that some families are doing better, however one of my biggest concerns is that someone will look at North Dakota’s top ranking and decide the work is done," said Xanna Burg, coordinator with North Dakota KIDS COUNT, in a statement. "There is so much more to the story. ... If the ranking focused solely on the well-being of children of color, North Dakota would fall toward the bottom.”

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To help combat the damaging effects of poverty, North Dakota KIDS COUNT recommends state lawmakers raise the minimum wage to help families afford basic necessities, the group said in a statement. Lawmakers should also make more investments in early childhood education to help support working families and their children, the group said.

“The reality today for many children and families has been shaped by generations of discriminatory policies and limited access to the economic resources that other families have had,” North Dakota KIDS COUNT said in a statement. “To move North Dakota forward, now is the time to invest in solutions that ensure all children grow up in families with the resources and support needed to thrive.”

For overall child well-being, North Dakota ranked 12th in the nation, falling shortly behind other Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota. Overall well-being is based on a combination of economic, education, health and family and community factors, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

North Dakota’s lowest score was in education, ranking 31st in the nation. Approximately 68% of North Dakota children ages 3 and 4 were not in school in 2017-19, according to the report. Sixty-six percent of fourth graders were not proficient in reading during the same time period, the report said.

Just across the border, Minnesota children scored high in overall well-being by ranking third in the nation.

Specifically, Minnesota also ranked third in economic well-being based on data up to the pandemic, with about 143,000 children living in poverty.

“As we move out of the pandemic and take a look at our long-standing disparities, we have an obligation to rebuild a stronger and more equitable Minnesota where marginalized children can flourish, policymakers center child and youth well-being and communities wield power to make change," said Bharti Wahi, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

Minnesota ranked seventh in education, with about 48% of children ages 3 and 4 attending school in 2017-19.

The latest KIDS COUNT Data Book also highlighted preliminary data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau showing the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on families nationwide.

Many disparities surfaced when the data was broken down by race.

In March 2021, approximately 30% of both Black and Latino households surveyed reported “slight or no confidence in paying rent or mortgage on time,” compared to 11% of white households, according to the report

About one in seven adults with children said their household “sometimes or always did not have enough to eat in the most recent weeks” in 2020, the report states. The percentage is higher for families of color, with 25% of Black households and 20% of Latino households saying they were experiencing food insecurity. The percentage for white households was 10%.

The KIDS COUNT report urged federal and local lawmakers to approve public policy to assist children in the United States.

“The nation will not recover from (the COVID-19 pandemic) without innovative public policy,” the report said. “Our leaders must act to strengthen the social safety net and to weave in new safeguards for children, families and communities.”

Rochester Post Bulletin reporter John Molseed contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.